Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" Is the National Anthem We All Need Right Now
On October 7, not even one full week since the Route 91 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Jason Aldean performed the cold open to Saturday Night Live, replacing the usual fare – namely, Alec Baldwin’s eerie impersonation of Donald Trump – with a somber message of resolve and a song. It was only the second episode of the season, but the beginning of the tenth month in what feels increasingly like an untenable year, one that seems to get more grueling as each week – as each day – churns on.
It had been a discouraging winter and a rotten spring and a rough summer, and it was shaping up to be an unremittingly shitty fall. Everything sucked. A series of natural disasters with lovable grandparent names did their best to smother and drown a handful of American cities and commonwealths; two buffoons with inexplicable haircuts engaged in light-hearted nuclear brinksmanship like Newman and Kramer playing Risk on the subway; tiki Nazis in polo shirts and Hush Puppies marched proudly through the streets of Charlottesville; and football – designed to be an absolutely meaningless diversion from exactly these kinds of things – became a political point of contention between two groups of people having two completely different arguments. It had been a long stretch of constant agitation culminating in the massacre of 58 souls by a single man alone in a suite at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on the first day of October.
It was too much to take for too extended a time. As Americans, we needed to be calmed, to be soothed. We needed to memorialize. We needed to be reminded that there was a normal and that we would get back to it very soon if we remained steadfast. We needed to be led. We needed to be united.
“There are children, parents, brothers, sisters, friends – they’re all part of our family,” said Jason Aldean. “So I want to say to them: We hurt for you, and we hurt with you. And you can be sure that we’re going to walk through these tough times together, every step of the way. Because when America is at its best, our bond and our spirit – it’s unbreakable.”
And he joined us together by playing our new national anthem.
Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” seems an unlikely choice for a national anthem – at first. The studio version, included on Petty’s 1989 album Full Moon Fever, has Jeff Lynne’s pop gloss smeared all over it. The vocals are light and celebratory. And the song’s official video is similarly unserious, featuring Ringo Starr being very Ringo Starry: drilling a hole into a giant globe and peering comically into it, giving his head that little Ringo shake, drumming his fingers, arching one eyebrow. It’s not exactly what you would call reverent.
But in 2001, Petty seemed to unofficially put this song forward when he played a stripped-down version of it during the America: A Tribute to Heroes broadcast in the wake of September 11. This version has a toughness that the original didn’t seem to be going for. The vocals are less celebratory and more determined. Petty’s whole demeanor during this performance is, naturally, much different than in the music video. He’s not pissed off, but he looks like he’s just about to get pissed off. This is the version, essentially, that Jason Aldean plays on Saturday Night Live.
But perhaps the truest version of this song, and the best argument for it as a representation of our national character, was released a year prior to that Tribute to Heroes broadcast, and not by Petty but by the Man in Black himself, Johnny motherfucking Cash. Cash recorded his cover of “I Won’t Back Down,” with Petty on backing vocals, for his album American III: Solitary Man, the third in a series of albums Cash made with Rick Rubin. His health deteriorating from a dysautonomia associated with diabetes, Cash gathered his strength and laid down the tracks for a new album, putting this song right up top. It is the sound of defiance itself, and it is elemental: six shimmering strings and two immovable voices, roots as deep as the Angel Oak.
Cash’s version wipes the gloss of the original clean away, exposing raw nerve underneath. In his voice, it’s a song about stubbornness but also deep weariness. This guy actually has been stood up at the gates of hell, and not once but over and over and over.
Tom Petty and Johnny Cash certainly seem to represent a particular strain of American durability and so are perfectly suited to be collaborators in constructing a national anthem. Both men were headstrong, fiercely independent, complicated. Writing about Cash in Rolling Stone magazine in 2000, Anthony DeCurtis says, “Like so many of the titanic heroes of rock and roll, Johnny Cash is a glorious mess of contradictions.” How better to describe America itself?
In many ways, “I Won’t Back Down” is a better choice of anthem than our actual national anthem. For one thing, it doesn’t contain a problematic third verse that we all have to pretend doesn’t exist. Its melody wasn’t borrowed (ahem, stolen) from an old British drinking song. And it wasn’t written by a man who defended slavery and went on record to say that Africans in America were “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community,” as Francis Scott Key is known to have done.
Petty is much easier to deal with. He somehow managed to be both a California transplant and a southerner in good standing. He wrote songs about southern pride in a way that seems authentic without pandering or being offensive. (See: “Rebels.”) He was political, but not in the way that Springsteen is political. And he was the kind of guy for whom the term “laconic” was invented – laid back, unassuming, simultaneously humble and cocksure. Plus, he was a Traveling Wilbury! I’m not exactly sure how that applies here, but it has to account for something. Those guys were adorable.
As for the song itself, it could not be easier to sing. It sits right in the heart of the register and the lyrics are pure simplicity. “Well I won’t back down / No I won’t back down / You can stand me up at the gates of hell / but I won’t back down.” This is a song that a football stadium full of people can sing together in a single voice, which is exactly what happened on October 8th when the Florida Gators paid tribute to Petty between the third and fourth quarters in a game against LSU. “Let’s celebrate together what he meant to the world of music and what he meant to this community,” said Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin. “Since we are already singing ‘We Are the Boys,’ let’s go right from that into one of his great anthems and make that the way we are going to jointly celebrate Tom Petty and the Gators.” And the fans did sing it – all 90,000 of them in a sublime moment of perfect unity.
Our national anthem is meant to unite us; unfortunately, we are living in a time when everything divides. Rage culture has herded us into separate groups, and the leaders that should be bringing us back together are marching us instead in opposite directions. “March!” they say whenever we look back over our shoulders at the people we used to be encouraged to love. “March!”
In his latest Netflix comedy special Too Real, Marc Maron identifies Tom Petty as the last thing we can pretty much all agree on in this country. “Everyone loves Tom Petty and burritos,” he says. “But I don’t think Petty is enough to bridge this gap. I just don’t think he has that power at this juncture.” The special, admittedly, was recorded before Petty died. But I disagree with Maron. Tom Petty is our last, best hope.
“I Won’t Back Down” speaks to our American resilience. Jason Aldean knew it. Johnny Cash heard it. 90,000 Gators fans expressed it. Petty may be gone, but he left behind this thing – so pure and so simple that it’s almost hymnal – and he gave us the instructions on how to properly use it. It’s easy: you play it and you sing it and you keep singing it until we’re all singing it.
It’s possible it could heal us. Something has to.
header image: "tom petty & the heartbreakers - new orleans jazz & heritage festival 2012," takahiro kyono / wikimedia commons